KU political scientist heads scholars' review of 'From Deliberation to Dysfunction'

Tue, 11/15/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

Burdett Loomis

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis is editor of “The U.S. Senate: From Deliberation to Dysfunction,” a new book that looks at the mechanics of an institution that in many ways seems to be broken.

The book evolved from a March 2010 conference at the Dole Institute of Politics at KU to review the evolution of the Senate in the past 50 years: 1960 to 2010. Papers presented by 12 top scholars, including Loomis, review the Senate’s recent history through today’s current climate of partisanship and polarization. Loomis will discuss the book at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Dole Institute.

“The book’s strength is its contributors — a blue ribbon group of scholars of the Senate,” says Loomis.

The contributors do not suggest specific reforms but rather provide background for would-be reformers to grasp “how difficult it is to change a non-majoritarian, highly individualistic institution with its unique combination of tradition, precedent and constitutional mandate.”

A major monkey-wrench in today’s contentious political atmosphere is the Senate’s unique 60-vote or three-fifths vote needed for action.

“The House runs on a majority vote. The Senate takes 60 votes to proceed, and that is often hard to get, ” Loomis says. He adds that he doubts that the framers of the Constitution envisioned the crippling effect the 60-vote requirement could have with filibuster and other obstructionist tactics used by both parties in the past decade.

Yet the source for the dysfunction may be in a more polarized electorate than the institution itself, Loomis offers. If so, don’t just blame the institution for its inability to deal with serious issues facing the nation, he cautions.

“Today the ideological differences are creating difficult divisions on almost every issue — not just Social Security or health care but other issues such as the jobs bill or farm subsidies.”

There was a time was when senators spent their first four years trying to govern and the last two years of their term campaigning for re-election, Loomis said. More recently they see themselves as a team, and one of the team’s goals is to win the next election, which means raising money from the get-go.

“Part of the Republicans’ strategy is to make current administration look as bad as possible. As Mitch McConnell noted in 2009, his goal to see that the president is not re-elected is aggressive,” Loomis adds.

“There are no costs to being an obstructionist, and both parties have slowed down the process when in the minority.”

There is a temptation to idealize the past, Loomis says, but obstructionism and partisanship are not new. The Senate did not support Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to establish a League of Nations after World War I and struggled with Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy’s ambitious post-World War II hunt for Communist Party members in government.

Fifty years ago the Senate included Republicans such as Barry Goldwater, Jacob Javits and Margaret Chase Smith, and Estes Kefauver, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey on the Democratic side. In general, there was more collegiality and bipartisanship. There were far more moderates in both parties, which helped them pass legislation.

The 2009 election removed a lot of moderate Democrats from Congress. “There are fewer and fewer in the middle [of either party], and those who remain are being pushed to the extreme,” Loomis said.

In a state like Kansas, the shift toward extremism means that “potentially moderate legislators like Sen. Jerry Moran or Rep. Kevin Yoder now have to worry about the right side of their own party. Instead of looking over their left shoulder [at prospective Democratic opponents], they’re looking over their right shoulder at the Tea Party wing of their own party,” Loomis said.

The new book is published by CQ Press.

Loomis’ previous books include “The Contemporary Congress,” “Time, Politics and Policies: A Legislative Year,” “The New American Politician,” “Esteemed Colleagues: Civility and Deliberation in the United States Senate” and “The Sound of Money,” written with Darrell West. He is co-editor of “Choosing a President” and co-author of “Republic on Trial.” He and Allan Cigler, professor of political science at KU, are co-editors of seven editions each of “Interest Group Politics” and “American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings.”

Tue, 11/15/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

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Erin Curtis Dierks